Just eight months shy of its 20th anniversary, the Mall of America remains fresh enough and familiar enough to rank as the top go-to mall in the United States.

In fact, with an estimated 40 million guests a year, the Mall of America is head-and-shoulders above its competitors, according to Travel + Leisure magazine, which researched shopping traffic at the 50 largest enclosed malls across the country.

"The history of modern mall development is divided into two distinct eras: everything that came before Mall of America and everything after," the publication said. "MOA changed the playing field radically, not just in terms of size (for years it was the world's largest mall) but also that heady blend of retail, entertainment and 'Wow!' factor that subsequent malls have tried to achieve."

Opened in August 1992, the Bloomington mecca for shoppers is a 4.2-million-square-foot collection of small and big retailers, fine and casual dining, thrill rides and theaters, not to mention an aquarium.

Ranked second in the Travel + Leisure list is Del Amo Fashion Center in Torrance, Calif., with 27.6 million annual visitors. The Woodfield Mall in Schaumburg, Ill. comes in third place 27 million annual visitors.

The Bloomington mall's popularity and prosperity are undeniable. Total sales surpassed $1 billion for the first time in 2010 and are up 9 percent so far this year, more than double that of other shopping centers, according to data collected by the International Council of Shopping Centers.

Part of the mall's success is both its newness (a dozen new stores and restaurants opened during the past year) and its familiarity (it has had the same anchor tenants since opening day).

"The importance of keeping things fresh is important in some settings, but familiarity is important too," said Akshay Rao, a marketing professor at the University of Minnesota's Carlson School of Management. "Consumers are comfortable with the same things they had years ago."

Visitors come to the Mall of America from all over the world. However, 60 percent of the mall's traffic comes from within a 150-mile radius, meaning a fair amount of shoppers are from Minnesota, Wisconsin and Iowa.

"It's not like there are a slew of alternatives in the area," Rao said.

The publication asked mall owners to share their latest data. Some did, others declined. "In cases where we couldn't get the data directly from the malls, we used alternative sources including chambers of commerce, newspapers, advertising agencies, and tourism websites,'' Travel + Leisure said. "Given that people don't purchase tickets to a mall, all of the annual visitation numbers are estimates, no matter what the source.''

With an estimated 40 million visitors, the Bloomington mall was the most visited. In addition to its 525 stores and a 1.2-million-gallon aquarium, the mall has other draws as well, including more than 400 special events and celebrity appearances a year. Minnesota Vikings running back Adrian Peterson will be at the mall Tuesday, for example, and there are free holiday concerts daily through Dec. 23.

While MOA's demographic crunch is among women ages 25 to 45 and teens and tweens, it remains a family draw.

"The appeal of the Mall of America is that sheer variety of experience people can have there," said Rachael Marret, president of the Minneapolis advertising agency Campbell Mithun. "There's something for everyone but you're all still in one place."

Still, the mall has experienced some hiccups over the years. Like the small city it is, there have been accidents and deaths and security issues. An nightclub district on the fourth floor floundered and eventually had to be reinvented. There is a comedy club and a bowling alley/sports bar and restaurant in that area now. Camp Snoopy was replaced by Nickelodeon Universe as provider of the mall's centralized theme park.

But today, the Mall of America is as high-tech and hip as the world around it. The mall has more than 300,000 Facebook likes, offers parking updates via Twitter and has embarked on a texting relationship with customers who can tell the mall what they like and don't like, anything they would like to see changed and any cleanliness issues.

With stores like Nike, Apple and the Gap, along with anchors Nordstrom, Macy's, Bloomingdale's and Sears, the mall is a showcase of American culture.

"Their marketing is brilliant," said Marret. "They command a presence just by saying it's the Mall of America. That says, 'We like to do things in a big way.' "

David Phelps • 612-673-7269